Women are not allowed to serve in the most elite U.S. special operations units, but they are allowed to serve near them.
The military began on Wednesday its evaluation of how it will open all combat roles to female troops. It has until 2016 to open all doors to women, or prove why they should still be excluded from certain roles, such as in Navy SEALs or in Army Special Forces.
But an elite cadre of female troops is already patrolling on secretive missions, and may provide the irrefutable evidence that they are ready for the job.
In the early years of the war in Afghanistan, local cultural norms against interactions between the sexes dogged the men-only cadre of special operators. In August 2009, then-Gens. Stanley McChrystal (the top commando) and David Petraeus (CentCom commander) got the "go ahead" to incorporate a new weapon in their arsenal, not dissimilar to the Female Engagement Teams that regularly patrol with Marine infantry units to interact with local women and children.
"Cultural Support Teams" employ women outside of the other special operations positions that had previously been open to them, such as Civil Affairs or in intelligence roles. The first units deployed in Januay 2011 and, according to sources within special operations in Afghanistan, have moved in lockstep with the men.
"CSTs have proven to be a remarkable effects multiplier everywhere they've been employed," says Army Lt. Col. Tom Bryant, a spokesman for the Special Operations Joint Task Force in Afghanistan.
CSTs support special operations teams' Village Stability Operations, a primary role of the task force, and a job that prompted the initial demand for female assistance. These women are "persistently engaging Afghan women and families" to "leverage female influence" in VSO missions, Bryant says.
They question and search women and children – culturally off limits to a man – help identify targets, calm tension, and protect women and children "on target."
They also help counter disinformation spread by enemy forces, including the Taliban. The top commando in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Tony Thomas, told reporters on Wednesday that the coalition military underestimated the enemy's ability to propagate rumors and accusations about his operators, which he says led to the ouster of special operations troops from Wardak Province at the beginning of this year. "You have to give the enemy credit for this enemy information operations," he said via teleconference from Afghanistan.
Selection and training for CST troops takes roughly eight months, according to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command website. The process includes psychological and written tests and rigorous physical training. Students train on the M-4 rifle and M-9 pistol. They also prepare for nine-month deployments, in which they may conduct foot patrols up to 10 kilometers or helicopter-borne insertions to get to their targets.
The teams' "face-to-face engagement" supports force protection, marginalizes insurgent fighters and helps local families understand the importance of VSO and Afghan Local Police missions, says Bryant.
"The talent, courage, and dedication these women display daily in the toughest environments will continue to be a vital component of successful SOF operations in the future - in Afghanistan and beyond," he says.
This may prove the key point for women breaking into special operations roles. Women currently may not serve in elite units such as Army Rangers, Air Force pararescue teams or Marine Corps special operations.
One expert on women in combat believes that is about to change.
"There's no going back. Once you introduce women into these areas of operation, there's just never going to be going back," says Laura Browder, an English professor at University of Richmond and author of "When Janey Comes Marching Home."
"[The military has] employed women in this war as the pointy end of the wedge," she says. "Once you start pushing that wedge, you're absolutely not going back."
Even after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a female presence is tactically necessary, an already strained military would not turn away able and capable troopers, she says, particularly those who can serve as translators.
"Afghanistan and Iraq were certainly areas in which women were absolutely necessary, and it was impossible to do without their help," she says. "The 'Pandora's Box' has been opened."
All of the service branches met the May 15 deadline for submitting to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel their plans for incorporating women into combat roles. Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, officially lifted this ban in January.
The Pentagon has until January 2016 to complete this task, with an ongoing lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union on its heels.
The future of CSTs and women in special operations remains uncertain as the U.S. plans its drawdown from Afghanistan by 2014, though Gen. Thomas confirmed Wednesday his troops will be among those the U.S. leaves behind.
Spokesman Bryant says special operations commanders are conducting research and analysis to "develop and enduring female capability organic to special operations forces," but declined to comment further.